Modern life can be so complicated and pretentious, and anyone who craves simplicity won't find much of it in the pop charts. Instead, it's left to artists like Edwin McCain to return contemporary pop music to its humble origins of a solitary microphone and acoustic guitar; a scene neatly encapsulated on the cover of his new record The Austin Sessions.
What McCain's sixth album proves is that a song can have as much, if not more, power stripped down to the bone as it can after a big-shot producer has embellished the life out of it. It also proves that singer-songwriters such as McCain can still have a voice in a musical climate where they are about as welcome as the SARS virus. His major-label deal with Atlantic/Lava may have ended, but independent label ATC Records knows a good thing when it sees it, and not only released The Austin Sessions but also allowed McCain free reign to write and record its contents.
The result is an immensely satisfying all-acoustic album that powerfully reinforces McCain's songwriting talent, musicianship and voice across its 12 songs, mostly McCain originals, but spiced with four selected interpretations of songs by other artists.
Of those, the best is the seven-minute cover of Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet", a difficult song to cover, but McCain somehow manages to banish Mark Knopfler's unique delivery of the song and put his own stamp on it with just his voice and guitar. McCain's acoustic flourishes and the strength of his voice give the song a warm, intimate feel despite the tragic theme and it's easy to see why it has been a live staple at McCain's shows for years.
Also covered successfully are Buddy Mondlock's "No Choice", Eric Hamilton and Jeff Armstrong's "Popcorn Box", and Bruce Creighton's "Island Song". "No Choice" in particular is worthy of mention but it is McCain's own compositions that command the most attention.
The new song "I Want It All" is a soulful, mid-tempo tune that provides relief from the plethora of ballads and slower songs on the album, but still retains the air of introspection and tribulation that permeates much of the material on offer, even the mandolin-infused opener "Let It Slide".
Continuing the theme is "Go Be Young", a haunting tune about regret and missed opportunities given new emphasis in such a sparse, organic form. The jovial-sounding "Little Girls" lifts the mood temporarily before the album's stand out tune, the poignant "Sorry to a Friend", brings new meaning to the words "heartfelt" and "ballad". As McCain sings, "The words are all gone / The time's been too long / But it's not too late to say / I'm sorry to a friend", the lyrics resonate deeply and prove the awesome power one guitar and one voice can have in the right hands. "Ghosts of Jackson Square" is just as affecting and drips with melancholy atmosphere and sincerity, while "Wino's Lullaby" should certainly not be on the playlist of any recovering alcoholics.
McCain's biggest hits, "I'll Be" and "I Could Not Ask For More", are not revisited on The Austin Sessions but despite their absence, the title and spirit of another overlooked McCain song, "Solitude", is most definitely in evidence.